1957. A year of events that would reverberate for years to come. Sputnik. The debut of cable TV in the USA. "I Love Lucy" ended production. The Cat in the Hat was published. And a musical duo that would be as influential as anyone on the next two decades' of popular music (the Beach Boys, Beatles, and Bee Gees were only a few among the many that would cite themselves as being significantly impacted by them) had their first #1 hit:
1957 would also see the introduction of the first 35mm SLR from a relatively small Japanese manufacturer that was to have an outsized influence on the industry that would continue for over thirty years. In that year, TOPCON (Tokyo Kogaku) would find themselves at the leading edge of 35mm SLR technology and they would remain there for the next decade. In effect, they were wide-awake ;-). The 1960s would see them emerge as Nikon's (Nippon Kogaku) most serious competitor in the professional 35mm SLR market. By 1977, however, Topcon's photography division would be a shell of its former self, outsourcing its remaining SLR production to Cosina and diving right to the bottom of the market. By 1981 (with Nikon owning over 75% of the pro market), Topcon was out of the photographic equipment business completely, even though they live on to this day in the industrial and medical optics arenas. So, what happened? How did Topcon go from industry leader to also-ran in the space of a generation?
PROGRAM...the buzzword for SLRs in the early 1980's. Only with this technological breakthrough could photographers now surmount the barrier of having to think about camera settings and composition at the same time! Freedom from Aperture- or Shutter-priority or (heaven forbid you were still using) m...mm...mmm...Manual exposure beckoned. At last, focus (no pun intended) only on composition...unencumbered by such banalities...and our wunderkamera will do it all better than you ever could, anyways...(Okay, okay, that's enough...1980's marketing-speak now set to OFF). Riiight. Anyhoo, Program was going to be the next big thing to save the Japanese manufacturers from the the slippery slope of the latest SLR sales slide (Aside: it didn't ;-)). From the introduction of the Canon A-1 (1978), the first proper Program mode SLR (along with the three more familiar exposure modes mentioned above), to the 1985 introduction of the real "next big thing" (Auto Focus), the profligate proliferation of Program SLRs only accelerated. Followers included: Fujica's AX-5 (1979), Canon's AE-1 Program (1981) & T50 & T70 (1983 & '84), Minolta's X-700 (1981), Nikon's FG & FA (1982 & '83), Olympus' OM-2S & OM-PC/OM-40 (1984 & '85) , Ricoh's XR-P (1983), Yashica's FX-103 Program & the Contax 159MM (1985), and the two subjects of this article: the Pentax Super Program (1983) and Program Plus (1984). That's 16 models within seven years. So what set the Pentaxes apart from the rest of their competitors? Read on Macduff ;-).
Today, weathersealing is taken for granted as a common, although not ubiquitous, feature in cameras. Over 30 years ago, however, it was rare in professional SLRs (the Pentax LX being the only model with what would now be considered to be even a modicum of such protection) and non-existent as far as any enthusiast or consumer-level 35mm model went. A plastic bag and some elastics were the standard means of improving the survivability of your rig in the rain or at the beach, with all of the compromises that implies. The time was ripe for innovation. And who better than Olympus to shake things up?
Canon the innovator...Canon the boundary pusher...Canon the...wait just a minute! Are we talking about the same Canon that moves today at what appears to be a less-than-glacial pace? Nope, we are talking about the Canon of over three decades ago...the vintage Canon ;-). A Canon that, while still the market leader, was determined to meet a declining SLR market with more than retrenchment. From an all-time peak of nearly 7.7 million SLRs sold in 1981, by 1983 sales for all brands of SLRs had fallen by over 30%. Sound familiar DSLR users? Canon had wrung the last drops from their A-series of SLRs (1976-84), the most successful line of manual focus SLRs ever, and the catalyst to the SLR boom of 1976-81. The question now facing Canon (along with very other SLR maker) was: Where to go from here? Their first response would be the T-series of SLRs (1983-1990). So how did that work out for them? From a sales perspective, the T-series failed to accomplish Canon's goal of revitalizing the SLR market. Each model seemed bedeviled by at least one Achilles' heel. But one thing was for certain, the problems came down to execution and timing, not a lackadaisical attitude on Canon's part. And ironically, out of the (relative) failures of the T-series would come Canon's greatest period of success, the seeds of which were sown by the most tragic of the Ts...the T90.
Updated May 4, 2020
The mid-1960s were heady days in SLRland. From 1964-66 all of the Big 4 Japanese manufacturers brought out new top-of-the-line enthusiast models: the Pentax Spotmatic (1964); the Nikkormat FT (1965); Canon's Pellix (1965) and FTQL (1966); and the object of our attention in this article...Minolta's SRT (1966). The feature all of these cameras had in common was: built-in through-the-lens (TTL) metering. We take it for granted now, but five decades ago this was revolutionary. Of the five models, the Pentax and Canons used stop-down metering (meaning that the photographer had to manually close (stop-down) the aperture on the lens to get an accurate reading and then focus at maximum aperture). The Nikkormat offered full-aperture metering (the lens remained at maximum aperture for the brightest view and ease of focusing while the meter reading was taken), but required the user to manually index the aperture ring every time that they changed lenses. Then came the SRT-101. Full-aperture metering and the aperture automatically indexed whenever you mounted a lens. No muss, no fuss. And all it took was:
At first glance, the FE (along with its slightly-older sister the FM) is as nondescript a Nikon as there ever was. Its specifications are nothing out of the ordinary for a late-'70s enthusiast SLR: 1/1000 sec. fastest shutter speed, Nikon's venerable 60/40 centerweighted metering, sub-600 gram weight, and a seeming dearth of innovation. Looks? Nothing to see here people...move along...move along. Flanking the classic Nikon logo on the pentaprism housing are two virgin swathes of metal betraying no clue as to the identity of this wallflower. Only once you go to bring the camera to your eye is there the possibility of positive identification, that is, if your right thumb isn't already covering the tiny "FE" that precedes the serial number on the rear of the top plate. But don't sleep on the FE, there is more here than meets the eye ;-).
Canon got off to the slowest start of the original Big 4 Japanese camera makers (Minolta, Nikon, & Asahi Pentax were the others) when it came to SLR development and sales . This was partially due to their commitment to interchangeable lens rangefinders for longer than their competitors. By the mid-1960s, however, they had embarked on a slow but steady climb that would lead them to market dominance by the late-1970s. Their first truly competitive SLR was the FT of 1966, and it would spawn one of the finest series of mechanical-shuttered enthusiast SLRs of the age and Canon's most successful non-A-series manual focus model. The second- and third-iteration FTb & FTb-N would prove to be the backbone of Canon's amateur lineup in the first half of the '70s and sold extremely well while both Pentax and Minolta were facing declining sales of their excellent Spotmatic & SRT mechanical SLRs at that time. That alone makes it a pivotal model in Canon's history. But it is much more than a sales footnote, it was one of the best enthusiast-level SLRs of its day, and that makes it a great choice today for the film-SLR aficionado. You could call the FT the analog 5D of its era :-).
1975 saw the introduction of the Contax RTS, the first camera since 1961 (when the Contax IIa/IIIa rangefinders were discontinued) to bear that moniker and which was the firstfruits of the technological alliance between Zeiss (owners of the Contax name) and Yashica, the Japanese camera maker (who did the actual manufacturing). The RTS (which stood for Real Time System, to emphasize the supposedly superior responsiveness of the body) was aimed at professionals and serious enthusiasts with pocketbooks sufficiently large to take on the task of mounting pricey Carl Zeiss glass in front of it. The RTS was a success, but as Nikon had found out two decades earlier with the F, having a single model camera lineup that aimed towards the high-end of the SLR market tended to limit opportunities for sales (less cameras sold = less lenses & accessories sold ;-)). So, four years later, in a move that mirrored Nikon's introduction of the enthusiast-oriented Nikkorex F in 1962 (followed by the more-successful Nikkormat of 1965), Contax/Yashica introduced their Contax-badged contender in the very-competitive amateur market. But what does this have to do with the Yashica FX-D? Let's find out :-).
Maybe it has something to do with the application of the term "vintage" to items over 30 years old, but there is a dead space for most cameras (and many other manufactured goods) that are in the 15 - 25 year old range. Not elderly enough to evoke nostalgia, and far from the cutting edge of current technology, they languish in a veritable no-man's-land. The subject of this article, the F90(X), is in such a place today. If you are a 35mm bargain hunter, and are willing to look past its plebian polycarbonate pelt...your ship may just have come in :-).
Coming-of-age. If any term could be applied to Nikon's auto focus SLRs from 1986 to 1991, that one has to be at the top of the list. The transition to AF maturity coincided with Nikon's rise to second place in the overall SLR market to essentially form a duopoly with Canon as the other members of the then-Big 5 (Minolta, Olympus, and Pentax) slid further and further behind, and in Olympus' case, dropped AF SLRs completely. The irony in all of this was that Minolta had gotten the drop on everyone and dominated the first few years in AF SLR sales with their groundbreaking 7000 model. Canon brought out their T80 FD-mount SLR a couple of months after the 7000, and it wasn't even close to the Minolta. So much so, that Canon abandoned further FD-mount AF development and began a crash program to come up with a completely new mount and SLR system. It would be two years before they brought out the EOS 650. For Canon, that would turn out to be time well spent, as the EOS cameras rocketed them to AF SLR sales leadership in rather short order. Nikon got on the board in April of 1986 (over a year after the 7000 made its not-so-subtle entrance). While the F-501 did not surpass the 7000, it was the first true competitor to the Minolta and gave Nikon a toehold (and critically, a one-year head-start over Canon to get established in the market) until they could bring out their second generation enthusiast AF SLR in 1988. By the mid-'90s Nikon had clawed their way past Minolta and tried to maintain pace with Canon in market share (which didn't happen, but they did comfortably establish themselves in second place :-)). Let the retrospecting begin...
With a major SLR slump under way, the early-to-mid-1980s were the golden age of the compact AF (auto focus) 35mm camera. Many snapshooting consumers, who had been sucked in by the snake-oil promise of SLRs that did everything for you, now turned to what they had really needed all along, relatively affordable compact AF models. Innovations were coming fast and furious, and widespread cost-cutting had yet to enter the picture. All of the major (and most of the smaller) manufacturers had at least one high-quality entrant in the hotly-contested 35mm f/2.8 category. By the late '80s, however, the bean-counters and the public's clamor for zoom lenses ensured the demise of the capable, yet economical, AF compact. But let's go back to the boom days of...
Gemini. The Latin word for "twins" was the name given to NASA's second manned space flight program. It was fitting for two reasons: 1) the two-man crew that crewed the primary spacecraft, and 2) one of the primary objectives of the project was to successfully rendezvous and dock/undock two spacecraft. The program successfully completed all of its objectives by the end of 1966 and laid the foundation for the Apollo missions to the moon. Coincidentally, 1966 also brought twin model introductions from Minolta that would lay the foundation for their next decade of rangefinder cameras. The nearly identical Hi-Matic 7s and 9. Both featured Minolta's new CLC (Contrast Light Compensator) metering, which would serve as the top-of-the-line exposure measurement system for Minolta SLR and rangefinder cameras until the introduction of the AE-S Finder (1976) for the professional XK/XM SLR followed by the introduction of the amateur-oriented XD in 1977. Let's take a closer look at the Hi-Matics and the 7s in particular...
In 1962, Nikon decided to take the plunge into the amateur enthusiast SLR market with a new model, the Nikkorex F. From 1959 to this point, they only had the solitary, professional-oriented, Nikon F in their SLR lineup. The price of the F put it out of reach of the average 35mm photo enthusiast. In the meantime, Minolta and Pentax were cleaning up in the sales department in the amateur market, with Pentax having approximately four times and Minolta ten times the overall sales of Nikon in the whole interchangeable lens SLR market in 1962. This would prove to be a very consequential decision by Nikon, one that would impact their growth for decades to come. And not just in camera body sales. However, the Nikkorex F would fail to achieve Nikon's goal of successfully breaking into the enthusiast market. So it was back to the old drawing board...
The mid-1970s were a time of major transition in the SLR industry. The biggest changes involved the downsizing of camera bodies (initiated by Olympus), the general electrification and computerization of many functions (most notably with the Canon AE-1), and the inevitable de-contenting and cost-cutting that came with increased competition between all manufacturers for market share. Perhaps no series of SLRs demonstrated being caught in this no-man's land more than the first three models Pentax released with its brand-new K-mount bayonet in 1975. Two models would survive only three years, the third only six. Yet, ironically, the fourth model, introduced in 1976, would go on to be one of the most successful and iconic of all SLRs and would be in production for well over 20 years. Fortunately for vintage camera lovers, any of these K-series SLRs can still be enjoyed and are serviceable even today. So let's take a look at the tragic trio of the KM, KX, K2, and the student camera extraordinaire, the K1000.
Domination of the mid-to-late 1960's sales charts. Millions of devoted fans. As influential on SLR development as a certain group of four blokes were on rock 'n' roll during the same period. We can only be talking about one camera...the Pentax Spotmatic (or Spottie to its ardent admirers), the first true superstar SLR.
In their never-ending quest to automate the operation of the SLR, the Japanese manufacturers first targeted auto exposure in the mid-1960s. Auto exposure (AE) initially meant that the photographer had only to set one exposure parameter (shutter speed or aperture) and the camera would automatically set the other. What became known as "shutter priority" (with the user setting the shutter speed and the camera choosing the complementary aperture), was the first AE mode to appear in cameras. It was the easiest to design and could be completely mechanical (no electronic controls) in operation. Konica (one of the smaller and more innovative SLR makers) was the first company to market a practical focal-plane shutter-priority SLR. Nikon began AE research & development in late 1964. It would be five years, though, before they had their first prototype and eight years before they brought an AE-capable SLR to market. So what took so long?
"Endling" - an individual that is the last of its species.
-The journal Nature-
Meet the last great manual focus Minolta...the XD (XD 11 in North America/XD 7 in Europe). Steady on, now! Wasn't the X-700 (1981) an award-winning camera with a more extensive and capable system of accessories?! Yes...yes it was, and it sold very well (2.1 million copies versus 750,000 XDs)...and lived a much longer life...and it has TTL flash...and a real motor drive...yadda, yadda, yadda. Just pick up an example of each and stroke the film advance lever. Case closed. Well, not really closed...I'm just getting warmed up ;-). Now the objective of this article is not to denigrate the X-700. (That would be rather unappreciative, seeing as it was my first real camera, it got me hooked on photography, and it is a good camera.) But a funny thing happened when I was looking for a backup body, back in 2000. I chanced upon a black XD 11 at my local pusher...I mean camera store, and for $50 less than I had paid for the X-700! Fast forward 16 years, and the 11 is still with me while the X-700 was sent down the road a few years back. Why?
Minolta was one of the most successful SLR manufacturers throughout the 1960s. With their SR and SRT series of cameras and Rokkor lenses they were consistently among the top 2 in SLR sales by the Big 4. (Pentax was the other market leader. Canon and Nikon were the two junior members as far as sales went.) They had sold more than 400,000 SLRs per year from 1966 through 1970. Nevertheless, they (as did the other members of the Big 4) realized that the market for fully-mechanical, manual-exposure SLRs was starting to reach a saturation point. And competition between the Japanese companies was heating up now that they had collectively pushed the German camera makers into irrelevance in the SLR market. Electronically-controlled SLRs would be the new weapons in the battle for market supremacy during the 1970s. The Big 4 had all begun development of these in the mid-'60s and now the fruitage of that labour began to appear: the Pentax Electro Spotmatic & ES (1971); the Nikkormat EL (1972); and the Canon EF (1973). Although Minolta would be the last to introduce their challenger in 1974, the XE-7 (XE-1 in Europe & XE in Japan) would turn out to be the best-seller among these first-generation electronic SLRs.
1992. Barcelona. Change is in the air. For three decades, challengers had risen and been vanquished. But now, for the first time, the adversary would gain the advantage. And Nikon F-series cameras would never be the same. From now on, instead of setting the pace, Nikon would be chasing, always keeping an eye on and trying to keep up with the new market leader. But how did it come to this? And what makes the F4 such a milestone camera in SLR history?
$250 - $350 USD. That's what it takes to have one of these beauties for your own nowadays (2020). For those of us who couldn't afford to own a pro-level camera back when the F3 & F4 were current, now is a golden opportunity to obtain a little slice of photographic history that is as usable as ever. If you have ever picked up one after holding a consumer-level body, there is simply no comparison (Yeah, they are that solid & heavy! Especially the F4! :-)). Even with F3 values rising again (and at a faster rate than the F4's), it still comes down to the attributes most important to you, the individual photographer, when making a choice between the two (if you can't have both, that is ;-)). It is the objective of this article to clearly delineate the differences between the F3 and F4 that could influence your decision-making process. So here we go...
In 1976, Nikon found itself at a crossroads with its F-series of professional bodies. The F2 was at the peak of its domination of the market, with 125,000 sold in that year, the greatest annual total achieved by a single F model ever. Compare that to 36,000 Canon F-1s and around 8,000 Minolta XK/-1/Ms and clearly Nikon was sitting pretty with the mighty, mechanical F2. The problem was in coming up with its successor, the F3.
The reason for this struggle was that Nikon had to try and balance its desire to make significant strides with the F3 and yet not alienate its customer base of professionals, a group not known for rapid acceptance of change ;-). Especially change involving more reliance upon electronics (where are you going to get batteries in the middle of a fire-fight in the jungle, or what happens if you miss a deadline because of a dead camera?). So here was the challenge: Maintain high reliability and quality while: 1) incorporating automatic operation, 2) making the camera easier and cheaper to build, and 3) convincing pros that it was worth upgrading to. Nothing to it, right? So how did Nikon do? And is the F3 for you?
When Nikon introduced the F2 in the autumn of 1971, its predecessor, the Nikon F, was still in high demand. In fact, 1970 had seen the highest ever level of production for the F, with over 100,000 units made. Nikon had intended to cease F production with the deployment of the F2, but demand for the F proved so great that two years elapsed before they were able to discontinue it for good. That is quite a testament to the popularity of the F and is also indicative of the tendency of professional photographers to stick with what is familiar and trusted. A similar thing had happened with the F itself when Nikon wanted to cease production of its rangefinders in 1959. Demand by photographers doubtful of the newfangled SLR and comfortable with their rangefinder cameras caused Nikon to keep them in limited production until 1965. Now history was repeating itself. So how could the F2 possibly compete with its already legendary forebear? By being a better camera, that's how. How much better? Let's find out...
Nikon has been in the SLR business since 1959. Which means there are plenty of choices as far as selecting a vintage camera body goes. Nikon initially marketed mostly to professionals. But in 1962 they entered the amateur market as well, and by 1979 they had three descending tiers: professional, enthusiast, and consumer which they maintain even today. Let's kick it off with the granddaddy of them all...the SLR that put Nikon on the map.
1976. A watershed moment in the history of the SLR (single-lens-reflex) camera. The year when, depending on your point of view, camera design and manufacturing quality began its slide into a pit of oblivion, or ushered in a new era of affordability and convenience, opening the doors of SLRdom to a whole new audience. Or maybe, like me, you can feel a bit of both ;-). Either way, the camera responsible is none other than the Canon AE-1, the best-selling film SLR of all time.
To appreciate the impact that the AE-1 had on 35mm photography, it serves us well to remember the context of its arrival and subsequent domination of the market. Prior to the AE-1, SLRs had been the choice of professionals (particularly photojournalists) and enthusiasts, people who were not interested just in snapshots, but in the craft and art of photography. Having control over the different parameters of exposure was very high on their list of priorities and the SLR gave them that, as well as access to a wide variety of lenses and accessories. For the average consumer, whose top priorities are convenience and affordability, that was waayy too much camera for waaayyy too much money! Thus the conundrum Canon was facing by 1974: a small, nearly-saturated enthusiast SLR market versus a huge consumer (mass) market that up to this point was untouchable for reasons of cost and convenience. What could be done?
Suffers from a two-decade and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.